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Another test date for the “new SAT” is coming on Saturday! Don’t panic – you still have time to prepare.
First of all, if you’re taking advanced math classes (e.g., trigonometry or calculus), you probably haven’t studied basic arithmetic, algebra, or geometry in some time. I go into these topics in my earlier blogs about the SAT; please read them. The point is, even “basic arithmetic,” as it’s called in the Barron’s New SAT book, isn’t really that ”basic.” For example, do you know what it means when an exponent is negative or fractional? Could you successfully evaluate 2-2/3? If not, please study the section on exponents in that book, another SAT book, or look it up online. There are tons of great free math review sites – e.g., purplemath, regentsprep.org etc. – you don’t need to pay a penny to get the information.
Second, make sure you know everything that’s in the “Math Facts” section at the beginning of each math section. It’s much better just to know the special right triangles, the area of a rectangle, the area and circumference of a circle (how they relate to the radius and diameter), and so on. You should also know that if the diagonal of a square is d, then the area of the square is d^2/2 . That last formula is not in the “Math Facts” section, so it’s important to know that one by heart. You should probably also know the quadratic formula (it’s likely that some questions you’ll see can be solved only using that formula – factoring or “completing the square” won’t work), the distance formula, and the equation for a circle.
The equation for a circle with center (h,k) is:
(x - h)^2 + (y – k)^2 = r^2 , so when the center is the origin (0,0), the formula becomes simply
x^2 + y^2 = r^2.
The distance formula between (x1,y1) and (x2,y2) on Cartesian coordinates is
where the points are as shown on the coordinate graph to the left.
Finally, you should know your basic trigonometric identities – at the very least, sine, cosine, and tangent on a right triangle. Remember, for an angle in a right triangle, sine = opposite / adjacent, cosine = adjacent/hypotenuse, and tangent = opposite over adjacent). You can remember that as “SOH-CAH-TOA” or
“Sin = Oscar/Has
Cos = A/Headache
Tan = Over/Algebra.”
You should also know the basics of the unit circle (e.g., when sine and cosine are positive or negative for angles with values from 0 to 2*(Pi) (sorry, I can't get the pi character to appear on here).
I strongly suggest you take a timed SAT – all sections, sticking to the times given for them, including the essay. The SAT is an endurance test, so the more closely you follow the actual schedule for the test, the better prepared you will be. Please read my entries on the SAT essay, as well as my general blog entries about the SAT English sections. Make sure you correct the SAT and know why you missed the questions you missed, and that you know why the correct answers you chose are correct.
Remember – the SAT essay is not asking for your opinion of the writing sample you are given the read. The SAT people are looking to see if you know how the argument is constructed, what literary devices are used. Don’t panic if you can’t remember the fancy names for them – just describe them well enough that the graders know what you are writing about. That having been said, if you don’t agree with the writer of the piece you’re analyzing, or you just see a really obvious counterargument that isn’t addressed in the piece, you can and should raise that as a defect in the argument. For example, you could write “The author makes an inapposite analogy that begs for the obvious counterargument that people generally choose their spouses with more care than their dinners.”
The nice thing about this SAT administration is if you’re taking it, this almost certainly isn’t the last time you can take it before you apply to college, so you can take it again later, after more preparation, if your score isn’t good. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take this exam seriously – you definitely should work hard and do your best, but there’s absolutely no reason to panic. Good luck!
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The next SAT is coming up soon, so I thought I’d help with my method for answering the SAT Essay question in more detail than in my previous blog, with links to a prompt accessible to anyone, not simply those with copies of the Barron’s New SAT book (which I still highly recommend).
Here’s the link to the instructions for the sample essay prompts the College Board has provided.
Before you look at the first essay prompt, I’d like to give you the same instructions I’ve given for the SAT and ACT essays: save writing your first (or “thesis”) paragraph until after you are done writing the body paragraphs of your essay.
I am telling you to write your first paragraph until you are done with the body and ready to write the conclusion because your examination of the essay in the prompt and writing the paragraphs may well lead you to conclusions you had not reached when you started writing. It’s much easier to write one clean, clear thesis paragraph that clearly states your main idea and your examples AFTER you know what your thesis (that is, your main idea about the passage) is and what your examples are.
Otherwise, you’re likely to end up having to scratch words out, insert words with carets (you know, these little things à ⱽ ), or having a thesis that doesn’t really match your examples. A messy thesis paragraph is not great, but probably not horrible, as long as it’s still legible. A thesis that doesn’t match the points you make and supporting evidence you cite in the passage is DEADLY; it will seriously lower your grade. I mean, what would YOU think of someone who tells you one thing, then completely goes off on a tangent? Probably “Hey, this person is spacy and probably stupid.”
So the first thing you should do is read the prompt, making notes as to what you see in each paragraph. What is the author’s point in each paragraph? What language does the author use? What evidence does the author cite? Is the evidence appropriate? Does it raise further questions in your mind? Are those questions answered in elsewhere in the essay?
Does the language and evidence make you feel what you believe the author wants you to feel? Does the language and evidence make you more likely to agree with the author? If the answer to either of the two last questions is “No”, the author didn’t do a good job of winning you over to his or her point of view, which is the point of any piece of writing the SAT will use for a prompt. Point out how the writing is effective or ineffective at convincing you, and why. What convinced you the author was right? Evidence? Emotional arguments? Skillful logic? Did the author predict the obvious objections to his or her arguments and address them convincingly?
Alternately, what convinced you the author wasn’t right, or at least not completely right? Was the evidence he or she cited inappropriate or misleading? Did the arguments immediately bring obvious counter-arguments into your mind? Did the arguments appear to be avoiding these obvious counter-arguments through excessive qualifications or limitations on the claims the author made? Did the author seem to avoid these arguments altogether?
Here’s the link for the first sample essay prompt – see if you can respond to this prompt in 50 minutes:
Here is the prompt, for those of you who don’t want to click the link (NOTE: If you have a copyright claim to the following excerpt, I believe this is fair use. If you believe I’m infringing on your copyright, please let me know, and I’ll remove the direct quote to this excerpt. But since it’s up on the College Board site for public access, I assume it’s all right to use the excerpt here, with proper credit to the College Board, the L.A. Times, and Paul Bogard… )
As you read the passage below, consider how Paul Bogard uses
Adapted from Paul Bogard, “Let There Be Dark.” ©2012 by Los Angeles Times. Originally published December 21, 2012.
At my family’s cabin on a Minnesota lake, I knew woods so dark that my hands disappeared before my eyes. I knew night skies in which meteors left smoky trails across sugary spreads of stars. But now, when 8 of 10 children born in the United States will never know a sky dark enough for the Milky Way, I worry we are rapidly losing night’s natural darkness before realizing its worth. This winter solstice, as we cheer the days’ gradual movement back toward light, let us also remember the irreplaceable value of darkness.
All life evolved to the steady rhythm of bright days and dark nights. Today, though, when we feel the closeness of nightfall, we reach quickly for a light switch. And too little darkness, meaning too much artificial light at night, spells trouble for all.
Already the World Health Organization classifies working the night shift as a probable human carcinogen, and the American Medical Association has voiced its unanimous support for “light pollution reduction efforts and glare reduction efforts at both the national and state levels.” Our bodies need darkness to produce the hormone melatonin, which keeps certain cancers from developing, and our bodies need darkness for sleep. Sleep disorders have been linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression, and recent research suggests one main cause of “short sleep” is “long light.” Whether we work at night or simply take our tablets, notebooks and smartphones to bed, there isn’t a place for this much artificial light in our lives.
The rest of the world depends on darkness as well, including nocturnal and crepuscular species of birds, insects, mammals, fish and reptiles. Some examples are well known—the 400 species of birds that migrate at night in North America, the sea turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs—and some are not, such as the bats that save American farmers billions in pest control and the moths that pollinate 80% of the world’s flora. Ecological light pollution is like the bulldozer of the night, wrecking habitat and disrupting ecosystems several billion years in the making. Simply put, without darkness, Earth’s ecology would collapse....
In today’s crowded, louder, more fast-paced world, night’s darkness can provide solitude, quiet and stillness, qualities increasingly in short supply. Every religious tradition has considered darkness invaluable for a soulful life, and the chance to witness the universe has inspired artists, philosophers and everyday stargazers since time began. In a world awash with electric light...how would Van Gogh have given the world his “Starry Night”? Who knows what this vision of the night sky might inspire in each of us, in our children or grandchildren?
Yet all over the world, our nights are growing brighter. In the United States and Western Europe, the amount of light in the sky increases an average of about 6% every year. Computer images of the United States at night, based on NASA photographs, show that what was a very dark country as recently as the 1950s is now nearly covered with a blanket of light. Much of this light is wasted energy, which means wasted dollars. Those of us over 35 are perhaps among the last generation to have known truly dark nights. Even the northern lake where I was lucky to spend my summers has seen its darkness diminish.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Light pollution is readily within our ability to solve, using new lighting technologies and shielding existing lights. Already, many cities and towns across North America and Europe are changing to LED streetlights, which offer dramatic possibilities for controlling wasted light. Other communities are finding success with simply turning off portions of their public lighting after midnight. Even Paris, the famed “city of light,” which already turns off its monument lighting after 1 a.m., will this summer start to require its shops, offices and public buildings to turn off lights after 2 a.m. Though primarily designed to save energy, such reductions in light will also go far in addressing light pollution. But we will never truly address the problem of light pollution until we become aware of the irreplaceable value and beauty of the darkness we are losing.
Let’s try analyzing the essay paragraph by paragraph:
First, the author, Paul Bogard, uses the title “Let There Be Dark,” an obvious allusion to the beginning of the Book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible – “Let there be light.” This title is designed to catch the reader’s interest.
Second, the essay uses appeals to the senses in a nostalgic anecdote about the author’s childhood summers spent at a bucolic Minnesota lake. “I knew woods so dark that my hands disappeared before my eyes. I knew night skies in which meteors left smoky trails across sugary spreads of stars.” The author also uses alliteration effectively in the phrase “sugary spreads of stars.” Certainly, this opening pair of sentences is an effective appeal to the senses and nostalgia (even if the reader has not had such an experience, he or she can think “Wow – I wish I’d been there!”).
The author then continues with “But now, when 8 of 10 children born in the United States will never know a sky dark enough for the Milky Way, I worry we are rapidly losing night’s natural darkness before realizing its worth… [L]et us also remember the irreplaceable value of darkness.” The author appeals to our sense of nostalgia and fear for the today’s children, as well as their children, by citing a statistic that 8 of 10 children will never know a truly dark sky, and citing to the “irreplaceable value of darkness.” This is effective rhetoric, since people often fear that technology and society are headed in the wrong direction, but the author weakens his argument a bit by failing to cite a source for his statistic, although it may be from the NASA photographs he cites earlier in the essay.
The author then asserts “All life evolved to the steady rhythm of bright days and dark nights,” contrasting that statement with “Today, though, when we feel the closeness of nightfall, we reach quickly for a light switch.” He then asserts “[T]oo little darkness, meaning too much artificial light at night, spells trouble for all.” That paragraph contains an appeal to the senses – “a steady rhythm of bright days and dark nights” appeals to both the sense of hearing and touch (we can hear and feel rhythms) as well as sight (“bright” and “dark.”).
The author then cites to the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association to support claims that lack of sleep caused by too much exposure to light at night is harmful, because complete darkness is necessary to produce hormones that prevent cancer, etc. The author also claims that sleep problems, presumably caused by too much light at night, “have been linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression, and recent research suggests one main cause of ‘short sleep’ is ‘long light.’” This is a common-sense assertion – most people find it easier to sleep in the dark than in the light. The citations to medical authorities that raise the specter of fatal diseases being caused by a lack of darkness at night is certainly effective at convincing the reader why light pollution is a real problem, even if seeing many stars at night isn’t important to the reader. In other words, Bogard essentially asks the reader “So if you don’t care about not seeing the stars, do you care about not dying of cancer caused by light pollution? Then pay attention; this is important.”
Bogard then claims that light pollution threatens many nocturnal species, including birds and bats that migrate and feed at night, are threatened by light pollution, and that there is a genuine risk of ecological collapse from this light pollution. This is because nocturnal animals occupy key niches in these ecosystems, Bogard states, citing the examples of bats both consuming pests that would otherwise destroy crops, and nocturnal moths that pollinate those crops. Bogard then cites the economic value of the crops, and the “billions” of dollars farmers would otherwise have to spend on pest control measures (e.g. pesticides) if these creatures became extinct. These appeals to emotion (“Think of the poor birds and bats!”) and logic (“Think of how much food will cost, if we can get it at all!”) work in tandem to create an effective argument.
The argument would be stronger with citations to authorities to support his claims (e.g., Bogard should have named the source for his statistic stating 80% of plants are pollinated by nocturnal moths), but since the passage was adapted from a Los Angeles Times article, it is unclear whether Bogard cited a source for his claim or not. For our purposes, however, the claims seem reasonable and “true enough;” the claims that bats eat bugs and some bugs pollinate crops are generally accepted and not controversial. While extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, ordinary claims require only ordinary evidence, and “common sense” will do.
However, the final statement in that paragraph, “Ecological light pollution is like the bulldozer of the night, wrecking habitat and disrupting ecosystems several billion years in the making. Simply put, without darkness, Earth’s ecology would collapse....” Bogard uses an apt simile that appeals to emotion – comparing light pollution to a bulldozer certainly emphasizes its destructive power. However, Bogard’s bulldozer simile is an extraordinary claim, and he should have provided a citation to evidence, e.g., a statement from a biologist or association of biologists, to support it.
In the next paragraph, Bogard states that “darkness can provide solitude, quiet and stillness… which [e]very religious tradition has considered … invaluable for a soulful life, and the chance to witness the universe has inspired artists, philosophers and everyday stargazers since time began.” Bogard refers to Van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night as an example of art that could be created only by an artist with a clear view of the night sky with little to no light pollution. He then adds “Who knows what this vision of the night sky might inspire in each of us, in our children or grandchildren?” Bogard’s vague citation to religious practices and the more concrete example of Starry Night both provide an effective argument that darkness is important for spiritual and artistic inspiration, and it should not be done away with carelessly through light pollution.
In the next, second-to-last, paragraph, the author shows that NASA photos and computer images based thereon show that light pollution, a small problem as recently as the 1950s, has increased, and continues to increase, at an alarming rate. Bogard argues that this light pollution threatens to deprive the general public of the benefits of near-total darkness at night. This, in combination with the information from the preceding paragraphs, effectively creates a sense of dread and loss in the reader.
The final paragraph offers seemingly-easy solutions to the problem of light pollution: better-focused LED streetlights, as well as limits on when lights can be used at night. This is an extremely effective argument tactic, frequently used in advertising: presenting a high-fear situation (“You’ll be deprived of spirituality and art, then become obese and get cancer, if this light pollution continues!”), then a straightforward and apparently easy solution (“This won’t happen if we use better streetlights, and don’t leave building lights on all night!”). This approach makes it much more likely that the reader will adopt the writer’s suggestions – merely pointing out a problem without suggesting a workable solution just causes most readers to decide the problem isn’t as serious as the writer has portrayed it, or simply to rationalize “If there’s nothing I can do about the problem, why should I think about it? There’s no point in getting worked up for nothing.”
Now that we’ve analyzed all the paragraphs of the essay, all we need to do is add an introduction (for which you left space at the beginning, remember?), then rephrase it as a conclusion, and write that conclusion at the end.
So let’s write an introduction now, by going through the paragraphs:
Paul Bogard, in his essay “Let There Be Dark,” asserts that total darkness is necessary for people’s health, well-being, creativity, and even their physical health, as well as for the health of other animals who, in turn, support entire ecosystems, including our food crops. Bogard uses a personal anecdote, statistics from NASA and medical authorities, references to religion, spirituality, and art as evidence in support of his thesis. He also uses descriptive and emotionally evocative language when detailing these examples in order to impress the importance of total nighttime darkness upon the reader, explain the serious way in which it is threatened, and present a simple, common-sense solution to the problem. These techniques help Bogard make a convincing case for limiting the use of electric light at night, and for using streetlights that create less light pollution, in order to solve, or at least mitigate, this problem.
Let’s write a conclusion at the end now:
Bogard uses an effective starting anecdote about seeing the stars in near-total darkness in rural Minnesota, continuing with apt citations to scientific authorities to show light pollution causes disease in humans and animals. Bogard further effectively argued, using scientific information, that light pollution may indirectly but seriously damage crop growth. Finally, Bogard argues that light pollution may limit human spiritual and artistic inspiration by limiting the access to total darkness and the chance to see how many stars there truly are in the universe, using highly emotionally charged descriptive language. The high-fear approach, warning of dire consequences if nothing is done about the problem, is immediately followed by a simple suggested solution, making the message much more likely to resonate with the reader. While his citations are thin and perhaps insufficient in some parts, the essay is still very effective at explaining why light pollution is a serious problem, and in presenting a proposed solution to the problem.
Put these all together, and you’ve got an SAT essay, my friend! Hope this helps. Please comment on this if you have any questions, concerns, compliments, etc. Good luck to those of you taking the SAT in a couple of weeks – I’ll have some last-minute tips up soon!
Here's a sample response to the essay question given in Barron’s New SAT, Model Test 1, Essay. P. 748. I'm not going to reproduce it here. It's too much effort for me, I don't want to violate Barron's copyright, and the book's easy enough to get from a bookstore or your local library. I highly recommend the Barron's book for your SAT prep, despite some annoying typos in the answer keys. Note that the new SAT's essay questions ask you to analyze a piece of writing, rather than express your own views on an issue - in fact, the instructions expressly state "Your response should not give your personal opinion on the source text, but instead show how the author how the author crafts an argument to persuade readers." Make sure you focus on the writing style and argument tactics used by the author, not whether or not you agree with the author, although you probably should mention obvious counterarguments to the author's points, and how the author addresses, or fails to address, those counterarguments.
This essay uses a personal anecdote, citations to specific evidence from sources (specifically, survey results and famous accomplished creative people) and advanced vocabulary, possibly intended as humorous, to make her argument that creativity is essential to the personal and professional success of the individual, and to the advancement of society.
First of all, the writer uses a creative title – “A Lesson on Commas.” The title is creative because it is misleading – what the reader believes will be a lesson in punctuation turns out to be a discussion on creativity. Thus, the author’s choice of title is itself an expression of creativity. The author also uses a quote from Dr. Seuss to indicate that the essay is about creative thinking – “Oh the thinks you can think up if you only try” – rather than a rote English lesson to memorize.
The writer, apparently “Ms. Jensen,” according to her opening anecdote, states she was teaching a lesson on commas when one of her students, “the freckled, garrulous Emily,” asked her why she, the teacher, wrote. The teacher responded with a series of rhetorical questions – “Why does one listen to music? Or dance? Or look at the stars?” to make the point that people and other animals sometimes do things for the sheer pleasure of doing them or because they simply feel they have to do so. The descriptive language – the description of Emily as “freckled [and] garrulous,” for instance, makes the writer’s anecdote more personal and immediate.
The author then continues to explain that she later thought about her flippant answer, and realized her urge to write was an expression of her greater need for creativity. She then makes the indisputable assertion that creativity is essential to all social progress, since without new ideas arising from creativity, society would necessarily stagnate. She then asserts that people do not need to be world-class creative thinkers on a par with Jane Austen, Pablo Picasso, Johann Sebastian Bach, or other famous innovators from history to be creative and improve both their own personal lives and society. This assertion answers the predictable counterargument to the effect that “Certainly some people are extremely talented and innovative, but most people aren’t very talented. Wouldn’t those people better off doing things the way they’ve always been done instead of trying to be creative?” However, this latter assertion is less obvious, as evidenced by the counterargument the author predicted, so the author supports her assertion by following it with evidence. She then shrewdly supports her assertions by citing to the obvious creativity expressed by every young child. The strategy of showing her assertion is consistent with common-sense observations practically everyone has made is effective, since people are likely to dismiss survey results that do not comport with their own experience.
Ms. Jensen cites to a LinkedIn survey that workers’ job dissatisfaction is caused chiefly by “not being challenged” and “not feeling valued,” as well as an IBM survey that concludes “creativity [is] the single most important factor in corporate success.” The point she wished to make is that creativity is important to success and progress, and people resent having to work jobs where creativity is unnecessary, or even actively discouraged. Then the author again cites to common examples of medical, scientific, and engineering creativity to illustrate how creativity is important outside the world of “the recluse artist”– the cases of “medical cures, energy alternatives, and space exploration.” Again, this is a shrewd strategy, intended to pre-empt the obvious counter-argument that creativity is “impractical” and important only in pleasant but “unnecessary” avocations such as the fine arts. She concludes her argument for creativity’s importance with the overused Einstein quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” in an appeal to authority and also as a example of an important creative figure from history whose contributions were “practical” rather than artistic.
Finally, the writer provides useful and practical advice on how to teach creativity in school – encouraging children to see what is good and bad in arguments, problem solving, experiments, and to ask themselves and each other how the arguments and experiments could be improved. The last paragraph is a strong conclusion to this essay, giving real-world, common-sense advice on how to encourage creativity.
However, the writer’s use of advanced, English-teacher-like vocabulary, while perhaps intended to be humorous, is actually alienating and annoying, and makes the essay less effective. Ms. Jensen’s word choice imbues the essay with a subtext that says “Look how smart I am – I know words you might not and use them when simpler words would work!” A barrage of polysyllabic “SAT words” is not an effective way to win a reader to the writer’s cause, unless the writer’s cause is convincing the reader that the writer simply understands a highly esoteric or technical subject better than the reader does. In the case of a general topic such as “creativity,” that approach misses the mark by a considerable margin. It makes the topic more inaccessible by making the essay harder to read. This is ironic, given that the topic of the essay is that creative pursuits are important and should be easily accessible to all. Perhaps this is why Ms. Jensen, by her own admission, has had “little success” in her writing.
All in all, the essay is an effective argument for the importance of creativity that makes practical suggestions on how to encourage creative thinking, but it could be greatly improved by the author’s use of more accessible vocabulary and diction. An essay intended to encourage people to be creative should not discourage people from reading the essay by using unnecessarily difficult and smug-sounding language; the essay is about creativity, not unintentional irony.
and https://www.act.org/content/dam/act/unsecured/documents/FeeWaiver.pdf (ACT)
Hope these help!
If you’re family’s not wealthy, you probably feel the system’s rigged against you. There’s a reason why – it is! Your feelings are right. I don’t mean that an evil conspiracy against people like you exists, but naturally, people with resources are going to use them to help themselves and their families, not you or your family. Students from wealthy families can afford private schools, tutors, special classes, more and better medical care (meaning more opportunities to have their learning disabilities found and treated or accommodated). Their parents are linked to “movers and shakers” who can give them impressive recommendations, and the parents themselves are likely to be influential, important people that most university admissions people would LOVE to know better. Universities are expensive to run – it’s awfully nice to have wealthy donors who can donate buildings, help pay for maintenance, and so on.
I attended a decent, but not amazing, high school in an average suburb in the United States, with a good number of really dedicated teachers, and a few, well, less-than-dedicated teachers. That still put me far ahead, in the sense of opportunities and privileges available to me, of most students who had to attend schools in the inner city and poor rural districts. Yes, there are specialty and magnet schools in urban school districts, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. My family couldn’t afford private schools, tutors, or most of the special educational advantages some other families could. My SAT review consisted of my sitting with an SAT review book in my parents’ living room and practicing the test. I was still accepted to several elite colleges and universities.
How was that possible, you ask? First, I still attended a decent school, and the place I lived was full of people who valued education, or at least understood it was possible to advance your social status by getting a good education. My parents had a decent idea as to what it takes to get into a good college – it is by no means just a matter of grades and test scores. You have to show you have outside interests, are working a paid or volunteer job (ideally, both), are involved in your community in a positive way, and so on. None of those things require you or your family to have money to spend.
If you can’t do community service because you’re busy working to help support your family, trust me, admissions officers will understand, and even be impressed with you. You’ll have to balance academics, athletics, other extracurriculars, and a social life in college. You’ll have to balance a job, athletics, family obligations, a social life, continuing education, and more for the rest of your life. Scheduling and prioritizing are important skills that often aren’t taught in school. I know the Boy Scouts have a “Personal Management merit badge,” and maybe some other youth groups teach it, but generally, most kids have to learn it from their parents or their own personal experience (e.g., having a teacher tell you “I don’t care that your Aunt Phyllis died; you had two weeks to do this project – you’re getting a lower grade on this one.”)
Colleges really are not that interested in admitting people who seem to ONLY study and do nothing else – I’ve heard of them being called “gunners,” perhaps after Charles Joseph Whitman, the University of Texas student who climbed the University of Texas clock tower with his hunting rifle and started shooting at random people on campus. They really don’t want people who’ll burn out when they’re forced to face more than just academics, or BECAUSE all they do are academics, and a job is a nice “real world” counterbalance to what you learn in classes.
“Why is that?” you ask? Since colleges and universities look to produce successful graduates, they don’t want to admit people who are going to burn out easily. Also, if you attended a school that can’t afford to provide tons of support (e.g., tutoring, teachers with a lot of time to help you, etc.), you’ll be much less likely to burden the college’s tutoring service (assuming they have one), counseling services, etc., since you’ve learned coping and academic skills to get by in an environment where more people don’t care about you, or actively wish to harm you. Seriously, some people get jealous when they see you succeed and often try to get in your way. It can be conscious or unconscious, but either way, it doesn’t help you. Students from large urban high schools often do quite well at large state universities such as the University of California or State University of New York schools for that reason.
“Why do they want to have successful graduates?” I’m glad you asked. As a college student, you are both the consumer and the product. Your parents and/or you pay tuition, you’ll be asked to donate money after you graduate, and the college will use your professional and personal successes as advertising to future students, and to get higher rankings from U.S. News and World Report and other sources.
You’re probably thinking “That’s all well and good, John, but how do I compete against people who can afford all the academic support I can’t? My school’s not special. I can’t afford an SAT prep course or a private tutor. What do I do?” Never fear – I have advice for you.
My first advice is – use the library! Your school provides you with free books; read them! Your school probably has a library where you can borrow books; you almost certainly live where there’s a public library. These resources are often underused by the general public. Why? It’s your (or your family’s) tax money; use it! You can get test prep books to use for free; just don’t write in them. I generally don’t write in the ones I own, since I like to have lots of space for calculations and notes.
Secondly, see if your school offers any sort of SAT prep class – I recall that mine did. I didn’t take it, but you shouldn’t let my foolish decisions (maybe I had a scheduling conflict – it was a long time ago) influence yours.
Thirdly, don’t be shy about asking your teachers for help if you don’t understand something. Most people who became teachers did so because they actually want to help people learn – generally, they’re not paid very well, so it’s not about the money. If a teacher says he or she won’t help you, you haven’t lost anything, but you may get a ton of help if you ask someone who actually wants to help, and is probably thrilled and flattered that a student is actually interested in the subject matter.
Fourthly, Google, Bing, and whatever other search engines there are your FRIEND. There is tons of material available for free about the SAT, the ACT, and any academic subject. Yes, some teachers are so geeky and helpful that they actually wrote their advice down and posted it to the Web. Also, some test prep services put up free advice in the hopes that when it comes time to pay for services, you’ll consider using their services (why, yes, I AM one of those – thanks for noticing!).
Fifthly, ask for financial aid at test prep companies. From a quick Google search, and some information I’d heard before and remembered poorly, I found that Kaplan offers scholarships to students taking the LSAT, MCAT, GRE, GMAT, and some other graduate-school entrance exams – up to a 60% discount. They may also offer something for students who want to take the SAT, ACT, and so on. Again, it doesn’t hurt to ASK for a discount, scholarship, fellowship, etc. – just call, email, write, and ask the test prep company. The worst thing they can say is “No.” You might even be able to make a deal similar to what some bar exam prep companies do – agree to be a sales rep for them, get a certain number of people to sign up for their course, and your course is free! Why not ask?
Finally, I’d be happy to help you get test prep at a low price by arranging a group session with a few other students. My time costs about the same, no matter how many students I have to tutor at the same time. I probably will want a small premium for the additional work involved, but I’m not going to double the price for two students, or triple it for three, etc. So you can save money that way – contact me if you’re interested. Thanks for reading this, and I hope this helps!
I had a discussion with a test prep professional who was looking for an SAT math tutor for one of her customers. She does only the reading and writing parts, and her math tutor quit or was fired; I forget which one. She also told me something like “The student isn’t very motivated” I let her know that unmotivated students weren’t anything new to me – it was just a matter of getting through to them.
I gave the test prep professional one example of my motivating an SAT prep student of mine by emphasizing the reality he faced. I knew from this older sister (the one who found me and decided to hire me) that he was very interested in business and making money. So I just decided to tell him how the real world works. I know, that’s not a surprise if you know me, or you’ve read this blog or seen my videos. I told the test prep teacher the gist of what I told my student – that most people who make it in the business world and make truly huge sums of money attended elite, or at least very good, colleges and universities. There are some huge exceptions to that rule, but generally, you won’t even get in the door at most elite companies, law firms, graduate programs, unless you attended a good college or university and did well while you were there.
There’s no easy way to compare every secondary school’s grading systems and curriculum to the grading systems and curricula of every other secondary school in the country. For example, an average middle-class suburban public high school is not going to be the same as an elite boarding prep school. That means, to be at all fair, and not simply grant admission to applicants from the wealthiest and most influential families, colleges and universities have to make everyone take the same test. Standardized tests such as the SATs, the ACT, and so on, fill that need, albeit imperfectly. We all know that not everyone who does well on the SAT does well in college and vice versa, but colleges believe it’s better than simply relying on grades.
In other words, as I explained to my student, and repeated to this woman , it’s about rationing. There are only so many slots at colleges that give you the best chance of financial success in this country. So if you want money, and all the things it can buy, you should really study hard for the SAT, ACT, or whatever prep test. You’ll see this again if you want to practice a profession where you have to be licensed by the state – everything from medicine to cosmetology (no lie!).
The test prep teacher responded “But what if he’s not motivated by money?” I was taken aback for a second, since, to me, that sounds like “I really CAN’T STAND ice cream!” I mean, you can put those words together to make a sentence, but the sentence is basically nonsense. ;-) I responded “He’s a teenage boy. Trust me; he is.” I don’t think she liked that answer. She said she’d let the parents know about me, and that they’d get back to me if they were interested. I never heard from the parents or the test prep professional.
That exchange made me think about the phrase “not motivated by money.” That’s one of the most San Francisco phrases I’ve heard in a long time. I think the only time I turned down money when I was a kid was when my father offered me a dollar (hey, it was 1981 or so) to rake the lawn, and I told him I’d rather go play with my friends. He replied with something to the effect of “What the hell is wrong with kids these days?” I believe I ended up raking the lawn for the dollar, but don’t recall.
I was able to turn down that money because I was lucky - dare I say “privileged?” - enough to have a middle-class lifestyle where I didn’t really need every possible dollar I could earn. If you are an older teenager or an adult who can say he or she is “not motivated by money,” you’re probably from an incredibly wealthy and privileged family. That’s wonderful , but your free ride will almost certainly come to an end soon. Cars cost money; clothes cost money; food costs money; and your own place costs money. Once the parental gravy train stops, you’re going to have to scramble for every dollar you can get, just to have an acceptable standard of living. But I digress.
If you’re not motivated by money, then you’re probably motivated by higher callings such as pure knowledge and improving society (whatever that may mean to you). That’s also wonderful, but you’ll have to work REALLY hard to (1) find a post in academia (professors generally stay around for DECADES once they get tenure after bouncing from college to college as associate professors, lecturers, etc.), especially if you’re not in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields; and/or (2) if you’re planning to “speak truth to power,” you really should have an elite educational background in order to argue against very articulate politicians and activists who oppose you and to counter the obvious “Oh, this person is just a malcontent who can’t get a real job, so s/he’s a professional troublemaker.” It’s hard to make that argument against someone with a degree from Harvard or Caltech; any person is going to take a least a few seconds to consider that person's point of view, even if he or she eventually dismisses that viewpoint. The person with a mediocre educational background, even when making the same point, is more likely to be dismissed without a hearing. Is that fair? No, of course not. Is that the way life is? You bet it is. So sorry.
Finally, if you’re planning on majoring in something esoteric but intellectually rewarding (say “Classics” – i.e., Latin and Greek), or something students like because it’s fun and easy (e.g., “American Studies”), or otherwise demanding and still insanely difficult to find a job in (e.g., “Theater, “Drama,” etc.), you’ll probably need to do extremely well in the major, including the hardest courses, get ridiculously good recommendations for graduate school or entry-level jobs in the industry, and basically break your back to get a position in a field related to your major. It’s easy to get a B.A. in American Studies; it’s incredibly hard to get a position as a professor of American Studies. It’s fairly hard to major in theater and do well; it’s insanely hard to actually make a decent living as an actor, let alone become a superstar. That’s my advice for those who are “not motivated by money,” upon further reflection.
But what I’d really like to hear is what motivates YOU to want you (or the student in your life) to do well on standardized tests, or in school. You wouldn’t be reading this if there weren’t something motivating you to improve your scores. So do me a favor and let me know what it is! Feel free to comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you taking the ACT this coming Saturday? Do you need a little last-minute advice? Here’s my last-minute advice to you:
First, you should plan on taking the ACT with Essay, since almost all good colleges and universities require applicants to take the ACT with essay, and almost all of the good colleges and universities that don’t require it strongly recommend it. You can ignore this advice if you’re sure the college of your dreams doesn’t require it, but plans have a way of changing, and you may find you want (or have) to attend a school that does require it. Our friends at PrepScholar have prepared a helpful list of colleges that require and don’t require the ACT essay. Find it here: http://blog.prepscholar.com/complete-list-which-colleges-require-act-writing-all-schools .
This leads us neatly into my next piece of advice, namely, to take a timed ACT, including the essay, before you take the real ACT. Here’s a link to a .pdf of an ACT you can use, in case you don’t have an ACT prep book (or already have done all the tests, but without timing yourself) and can’t get one from the public library or a bookstore. http://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/360031/ACT-2015-16.pdf?t=1459898803062 There are many more you can find, simply by trying “Free online ACT practice test” into a search engine.
I realize that the test date is this coming Saturday, so you have about 3 days to do that, but if you haven’t done it yet, do so immediately. DVR your TV shows; cancel your plans with friends; your date can wait. Other than your schoolwork, nothing else should come before taking a timed practice ACT. You really want to test your endurance, your pacing, and all the things you don’t exercise when you’re just working on ACT problems or the essay at your own pace, which is how most people study for the ACT (It’s also how I tutor – I teach the techniques; it’s up to the student to improve his or her speed.) You especially want to make sure that you can write an essay after a few hours of multiple-choice questions. You don’t want your first experience with writing an essay after doing hours of ACT multiple choice questions to be when you’re taking the actual ACT. When you write the essay, stay calm, paraphrase the perspectives, and think of examples that support or undermine their points. Develop your own viewpoint, using those examples. See my earlier blog on the ACT essay for (much) more detail.
Make sure you check the answer explanations when you score your practice ACT. Make sure you understand the mathematical principles and the “tricks” underlying the problems you either got wrong or only got right by guessing blindly. If you simply can’t understand the explanation to a math problem, you can look up the principle online (I suggest purplemath.com, mathisfun.com, or regentsprep.org ). If that doesn’t help, then just note the kind of problem it is, and know you should just guess and move on when you take the real ACT. If you can even just remember things like “Areas can’t be negative,” you can eliminate some stupid wrong answers.
Make sure you understand the English problems you got wrong. If two answers look the same, look for a subtle difference in punctuation (if your eyesight’s not great, bring reading glasses)… Make sure you know the punctuation rules applying to the questions you got wrong. Google is a great resource for finding pages about grammar and usage, if you can’t understand the explanation the book gives you.
If two choices in the phrasing of a sentence or part of a sentence seem equally good, pick the shorter one, and don’t be afraid to choose “OMIT the underlined portion.” Many ACT English questions have underlined phrases that are redundant (i.e., repeat the same information) or digressive (i.e. that wanders away from the point being made). Eliminate them. On the ACT and the SAT, shorter is better.
When it comes to questions of idiom or usage (e.g. we “talk to” people rather than “talk at” people), pick the one that sounds right to you – it’s almost always the right choice. If the answer choice sounds weird in your head (DO NOT read out loud to yourself; you don’t want to be expelled from the testing room and/or accused of cheating), it’s almost always wrong. A few notable exceptions are that “It is I,” “Was it she?” “Is it he?” are all correct, even though almost any native English speaker would say “It’s me,” “Was it her?” and “Is it him?” Also, “they” is still not a gender-neutral singular pronoun in Standard American English, as tested on the ACT and SAT. If you don’t know or don’t care about the gender of a person, use “he or she” and “him or her” as the pronouns.
As far as the reading test is concerned, make sure you find actual evidence for your answer choices in the passage you just read. Actually look for it; don’t rely on your memory. Test makers are very good at making answers that look right, but aren’t – all they have to do is use a word or phrase from the passage, then add a “not” or similar word that makes what would be a correct answer an incorrect answer. Skim the passage first, just noting the main points of the passage, then read the questions, then scan the passage for supporting evidence. If you can’t find evidence to support your answer choice, it’s not the right answer.
On the science test, I recommend you read the questions first, then look at the passage to find evidence for your answer choices. If you understand the scientific principles being discussed, you may be able to answer some questions without even reading the passage.
Make sure you are looking at the correct table, figure, chart, etc. when asked to interpret a chart. If you don’t understand a term, look at the introduction to the passage to find a definition of the term – it’s often there. The ACT people aren’t lying when they tell you that you don’t need to have any knowledge of the science in the passages, but you do need to know how to interpret a graph, chart, or data table. I have believed, since the first time I saw it, that the ACT Science Test should be called the “ACT Data Interpretation Test.” There are many online resources that will show you how to interpret graphs, charts, tables, and other representations of data. Simply input “How to interpret a graph” into Google, or read my blog entry on how to prepare for the new SAT’s reading sections.
Finally, my general advice for the days leading to the ACT, or any other standardized test, remain the same. Borrow or buy a cheap watch or small timer for the ACT. You want to be able to track your time on the ACT, leaving enough room to guess at any questions you don’t have time, or don’t know how, to answer. There’s no penalty for guessing incorrectly on the ACT, so you don’t lose anything by guessing when time’s tight and you’re too far behind to answer the questions without random guessing.
Leave your phone at home; there’s no point in bringing something you can’t use on the test. All it can do is get you in trouble if it goes off during the test, or you take it out to check the time or use it as a calculator. And who knows if you’ll ever see it again if an exam proctor takes it away from you?
The same advice applies to any reference books, test books, ACT prep books, and so on – you won’t have time to study, and all the books can do is cause problems.
Make sure you have a scientific calculator that is ACT-approved, and bring extra batteries for it. For information on what calculators are and are not allowed for the ACT, see http://www.act.org/content/act/en/products-and-services/the-act/help.html . Scroll down to “Can I Use a Calculator?” and click on the caret/downward arrow symbol to expand that section.
Make sure you know where the test is being given, what time you have to be there (probably 30 minutes before the test starts), and plan to get there 15 to 30 minutes before that, for a total of 45 minutes to an hour before the test. Make sure you know how to get there on public transit if you can’t drive or get a ride to the site. Arrange for a backup ride with a friend if you can. Cars and other machines have a funny way of breaking down when you need them most – it’s often called “the perversity of inanimate objects.” As the cliché goes: “People don’t plan to fail; they fail to plan.”
Finally, take good care of yourself! The Friday night before the ACT or SAT is not a party night for you if you care about your score (and if you don’t, why are you taking it?). It’s not a night to binge-watch your favorite series or play online games all night. It’s not the night to eat radically different food that leaves your stomach upset, or work out so hard that you can barely move the next day. It also shouldn’t be a cram-study night. If you didn’t bother to start your test prep until this week, trying to cram the night before won’t teach you enough to do much good for your score, but will make you tired, cranky, and distracted when it’s time to take the test, which will definitely hurt your score.
I’ve rambled on long enough – please see my earlier blog entries for more hints. Thanks for reading this, and good luck!
I made a couple of videos at the request of Thumbtack.com , the online service that gets me most of my business (word of mouth is a distant second, and Craigslist is third). They asked me and others to make videos relating to Thumbtack. No, I'm not getting paid for this, but I did it because they're awesome!
Here's my playlist with my reasons why professionals should use Thumbtack, and why customers should look for professionals on Thumbtack...
Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.